📚 Reading the Holocaust (Inga Clendinnan)

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Inga Clendinnan’s Reading the Holocaust is what the name suggests, a reading of the various texts produced about the Holocaust. This reading is divided into sections, including a discussion of impediments, accounts from witnesses, what it meant to resist, the grey zone of those Jewish people who helped, the leaders, the police and the SS. It involves explorations of various texts, including memoirs, photographs, documentaries, poems, novels and historical accounts. This is something akin to a literature review.

Throughout, Clendinnan addresses the dangers of treating the Holocaust as unique just because it stands so near in time.

Our sense of Holocaust uniqueness (and we do have that sense) resides in the fact that these ferocious, largely secret killings were perpetrated within ‘twentieth-century Western society’, and that both our sense of portent and of the peculiar intransigence of these actions before puny human interpretation find their ground in the knowledge that they were conceived, executed and endured by people very like ourselves.
It is not that this material stands too far from us. It stands too near.

The limits to compelling the silence to speak and giving voice to the voiceless.

While we can never be sure what lies behind silence, I will begin to map the silences behind the words we have by exploring the circumstances under which people might feel the compulsion to speak, but find themselves unable to do so: situations, that is, when words fail.

Writing to find peace, to mend, to resist.

Levi was to find both personal peace and a way back to society not through the social activity of talking but the private one of writing: ‘By writing I found peace for a while and felt myself become a man again, a person like everyone else, neither debased nor a saint: one of those people who form a family and look to the future rather than the past.’

The difficulty with making sense of motives of leaders.

Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving. The notion that one must simply reject the actions of the perpetrators and not try to understand them would make impossible not only my history but any perpetrator history that tried to go beyond one-dimensional caricature … I must recognise that in such a situation I could have been either a killer or an evader – both were human – if I want to understand and explain the behaviour of both the best I can.

The theatre of the camps, like Auschwitz.

The theatrical perspective helps expose understandings otherwise left implicit, and flush into light some of the sadistic impulses which lurk along the boundaries of consciousness. It can expose the determined ‘othering’ by the SS of their ‘enemies behind the wire’. It can take us a certain distance into even this action sequence – into what Olga Lengyel, who saw it, diagnosed as one of the ‘fits of destructive insanity’ she thought occasionally possessed the SS. But I do not believe it can take us to the heart of the scene described, or into the hearts of similar scenes scattered through the record.

The problems with trying to provide thick description of thin material.

Despite the most diligent research, the material remains too thin to allow a sufficiently detailed retrieval of actions to achieve ‘thick description’, save in one singular instance: the Hamburg Reserve Police Battalion’s first day of mass murder at the little Polish town of Jozefow. More damagingly, Goldhagen tends to confuse detailed external descriptions of actions (‘They did this, they did that’) with the ‘thick description’ which Geertz would have us aspire to, where the actors’ meanings are the quarry (‘She’d gone too far, so I hit her’).

The challenges in attempting to represent the Holocaust.

The most effective imagined evocations of the Holocaust seem to proceed either by invocation, the glancing reference to an existing bank of ideas, images and sentiments (‘Auschwitz’), or, perhaps more effectively, by indirection.

In the end, she ends with the claim as to why history writing, with its balance between telling and interpreting, provides the best means of telling the past.

Historians are the foot soldiers in the slow business of understanding our species better, and thereby extending the role of reason and humanity in human af¬ fairs. Humankind saw the face of the Gorgon in the concentration camps, petrifying the human by its denial of the human both in itself and in its prey. The shadow of the Holocaust has lengthened with the years. In that shadow, none of us is at home in the world, because now we know the fragility of our content. If we are to see the Gorgon sufficiently steadily to destroy it, we cannot afford to be blinded by reverence or abashed into silence or deflected into a search for reassur¬ ing myths. We must do more than register guilt, or grief, or anger, or disgust, because neither reverence for those who suffer nor revulsion from those who inflict the suffering will help us overcome its power to paralyse, and to see it clearly.

One response on “📚 Reading the Holocaust (Inga Clendinnan)”

  1. If This Is a Man is Primo Levi’s memoir of how he survived the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. A trained chemist, Levi approaches the recount in a very factual manner. This methodical nature reads something like an absurd Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Whether it be only being transported later in the war, having the right skills required for work in the laboratory or falling sick at the right time, as Primo states at the beginning, chance played a significant part in Levi’s survival.

    One of the strange things about the text is the trick of language that makes you feel that you could actually imagine what it was actually like. It has me wanting to go back to Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust.


    It is man who kills, man who creates or suffers injustice; it is no longer man who, having lost all restraint, shares his bed with a corpse. Whoever waits for his neighbour to die in order to take his piece of bread is, albeit guiltless, further from the model of thinking man than the most primitive pigmy or the most vicious sadist.

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